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Right now you are an involuntary participant in the information economy and you are being taken advantage of. You could change that situation by treating all of your personal information like you treat your personal property.

Personal Information

Personal information is the accumulated impressions of ourselves that are captured and stored in some way as we move through life. We each emit a vast quantity of information across a variety of channels - Internet use, cellphones, living room entertainment, purchases and finances, organizational interaction, security or surveillance cameras, and others less obvious. It's a situation where many organizations are getting only a small slice of our personal pie, but each one can package it up and sell it to a broker (or have it stolen) who then sells it on to large-scale data warehouses. This vast quantity of information only grows faster as we continue to interact with organizations and technology.

If all of your information were to be collected in a single place, appropriately structured, and with the right algorithms, more than a few of your thoughts could be deduced. That's a little bit frightening. Even if that is not yet the case, we are each creatures of habit and products of our experiences so anyone who knows enough will have an easy time predicting our actions and influencing our behaviour. With vast computing capacity, this can be done for millions of individuals in parallel.

Needless to say, personal information has a tremendous value. It's impossible to know where it all ends up, and what is done with it, or why, since it is so easily acquired, duplicated, and transferred. Even if there was no booming information economy to be an involuntary participant of, most of us would still be grossly undervaluing and underprotecting our personal information.

Personal Property

Most people share a common view of personal property, whether their homes, cars, gadgets, furniture, important papers, identity documents, money, tools, and the list goes on. Our property has a place in our minds. We know where our tools are, when we got them, what they do, how much they cost, the likelihood of theft, and the appropriate place to store them securely. If we lose or damage anything, we get upset. When something is stolen, we feel violated and vulnerable.

Our most valuable property, such as cash, jewelry, or important documents, is appropriately secured - usually in vaults, safes, and behind locked doors. We understand that the level of security we choose needs to account for the value other people assign to the items. We are also aware that privacy is important, because we'd be soon targeted if everyone knew just how much cash was hidden in our mattress. Most of us don't want to live in legitimate fear and so we are prudent to keep that kind of information to ourselves.

In short, we understand value. The problem is that we're not assigning nearly enough value to our personal information. We treat our personal information in the opposite way we treat our personal property - as if it has no value at all, whether to us or to anyone else. The ending to that story is not a happy one.

Information Economy

The basis of the current information economy is that the sellers (individuals) don't value their product (personal information) nearly as much as the buyers (large, powerful organizations) do. This asymmetry of value means that the information treasure is being plundered as quickly as can be managed, with little resistance and the risk passed off to the sellers. Deals as lopsided as this are not voluntary for long. Furthermore, most of us have little idea of the insatiable appetite of these information aggregators, and so it's tempting to just go along with the process, trusting in a good outcome.

With our society immersed in technology, and technology as the medium of information capture, an individual's level of contribution to the information economy is linked to the degree of their contact with technology. Since we are all increasingly in contact, our participation continues to deepen, as ever more information is extracted, sold, and distributed for profit and power.

Involuntary Participation

Since individuals are producers and sellers they should be compensated for both the value they are providing and the risk they are taking on. But there is no compensation. Personal information should have a well understood price, but there is none. There has been no discussion of the general economic reality, nor of the terms of any specific purchase transaction. So it is clear that the sellers - the individuals, the producers, the human resources - are involuntary participants.

Situations like this, with no reward and only loss and risk, are the result of aggression. Entire populations would never voluntarily accept such terms otherwise. Personal information is simply taken from individuals, used, and then leveraged against them. Someone else is realizing the value. Most people don't know what they're giving up or what they're getting in return, but it's happening anyway.

The information is digital you might say, so there is no harm in making a copy because nothing is actually taken. It's no worse than pirating a movie! But no, it is much worse.

In a legitimate economy, two things happen. First, there are prices and those prices are usually set according to value rather than cost. Each participant is free to assign their own value to whatever it is they wish to share. Second, participants in an economy are compensated for risk, sometimes quite handsomely. The risk-taker normally has the ability to assess the risk themselves and set their price and contract-hardened terms appropriately.

Consider this. Today you are happy and loved by many. A year from now you are humiliated and destroyed after the most intimately private details of your life are made public. How? You don't know. Why? You don't know. What can you do now? Your problem.

That is a massive risk. A risk taken on simply by living a normal life, doing what everyone else was doing. You were aggressed upon the entire time without knowing it. You were put at risk without your knowledge and only later on, after suffering the consequences, did you make that discovery. That's not a situation people voluntarily put themselves in.

The situation for a voluntary participant is quite different. First, they can acknowledge that there is an economy and a market and that basic economic principles apply. Then they can choose the level and manner of their participation. They have the right to make, take, and refuse offers. And quite importantly, they set the price of their property as well as the terms of any deal.

In a voluntary information economy we would see our information as personal property, similar to how authors or artists can view their work as intellectual property. We might be more protective of it, more security-conscious, employ defense mechanisms, and develop concepts similar to copyright and enforceable contracts.

A New Beginning

The question remains - how do we get from the current situation to a better one? Or to the ideal situation?

The reality is that people don't easily change what they do or how they think. It happens, but it's slow and spotty so a viable approach won't depend on that. If you think that you're an exception, it's a nice thought but you're probably wrong. The situation is very complex and is made even more challenging because you are right in the middle of it, a long-time participant, and you are facing great risks whether you know it or not.

Still, you are capable of developing a new perspective of the situation on your own. There's no need for anyone else. You are the only one who will properly value your personal information, and the only one who will protect and secure it appropriately, so it's up to you anyway. This kind of change would be a fair bit easier if you were able to leverage your own personal information for your own benefit. What you need is a new beginning into which you can apply your fresh perspective. You don't need to change anything else.

If we are to imagine a legitimate information economy, it will have to be composed of individuals who have priced their product, protect it, and willingly engage in transactions on mutually agreeable terms. The buyers would have to properly quantify their own needs and make offers accordingly. Buyers would also have to be able to verify the quality of the information, compete for access and/or exclusivity, and abide by the seller's terms - including transferability and expiration. If done right, the quality and relevance of the information would improve.

This all implies yet another layer of technology, but one that would have to be radically different: designed to benefit the individual. If instead we go with more of the same, involuntary participation will remain the norm.